By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) On Monday, former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith tweeted the following:
Smith is currently on the Dallas Cowboys and on injured reserve. He hasn’t played in a football game since tearing his ACL and LCL against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl last Janaury. The Cowboys took him in the second round of the 2016 draft — a surprise to most — and while Smith received a lot of money for that, the knee injury definitely cost him much more cash in the immediate and the future if he’s unable to play at a level his former top-five draft stock had him at.
Smith isn’t wrong in what he tweeted. A choice that potentially hurts nobody but oneself is difficult to criticize, because it becomes the rhetorical futility of personal preference. Still, his willingness to play in that bowl game again if given the hypothetical time machine is the stuff of recruiting brochures and locker room wall decals, and if that greases his gears, more power to him.
What Smith didn’t do in that tweet was directly mention running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU, Christian McCaffrey of Stanford or Shock Linwood of Baylor, all of whom have opted to skip their teams’ respective bowl games in favor of “draft prep,” i.e. intelligent self-preservation. Those bowls mean nothing to the College Football Playoff or anything really tangible — including those players’ careers — other than money for schools and TV. Even the executive director of the Sun Bowl, which you and I aren’t more likely to watch with or without McCaffrey, has no problem with McCaffrey’s absence.
Smith’s tweet is a passive poke, though. The timing of the tweet was certainly in response to the situation with which the college sports world is now dealing. Frightening to NCAA loyalists and liberating to decent people, players becoming aware of the control they have over themselves vis-à-vis financial futures is very important.
“(Smith’s injury) definitely had an impact on the guys that we’re seeing (skip bowl games),” said the NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks, who played five seasons in the NFL. “Those guys have all kind of grown up together — high school games, camps, all-star circuits — so those guys have relationships.
“So when they see Jaylon Smith, who is locked in to be a top-five pick, lose a significant amount of money because he played in a game that really didn’t have any national title implications but he loses $20 million because he plays in the game and gets hurt and gets drafted in the second round, guys are beginning to take a little more ownership on the business side of things.”
Smith’s words, while a totally fine personal choice, are a product of a (supposed) amateur football system that ingrains in players that the game and the team are bigger than the individual. This happens because the football player is labor, nothing more, despite any tear-jerking Saturday morning TV feature of the week about which one is overcoming personal hardship (besides not being paid). He’s necessarily replaceable, at the college level be it due to time or injury, and on the pro level add in a pesky control over his own contractual worth. That’s now a reality for draft-eligible collegians. As amateur, he’s relatively free labor, a status the NCAA is desperate to hold on to. Hence the purporting of the made-for-TV aura that the beautiful, pure game is most important — because the system of free labor is most important. To buck the system — to assert control over oneself — is the greatest sin and gets criticized in various ways by various tentacles of the system beholden financially, nostalgically or otherwise to capital-F Football.
Thing is, all the criticism is bad and paternalistic.
First there’s the shaming the reflexively occurs, often mixed with some sort of mouth-farting about how other non-athletes make sacrifices for blah blah fart derp blah. This was perfectly laughably encapsulated in a now-deleted tweet from a high school coach and supposed philosophy teacher in South Carolina:
That is an epically stupid take on this matter for multiple reasons that don’t merit wasted space here, but lots of people out there who inexplicably cape for billionaires over millionaires over working class and businesses over people think this way. Mostly it’s because such people are fed bad arguments from different representatives of the Football lobby.
Take 670 The Score contributor Greg Gabriel, who’s otherwise a great football mind and talker but this week is representative of the third party old salt critical collective. In a series of tweets Monday evening. he took issue with sentient players:
“I am totally against players pulling out of bowl games. Football is the ultimate team game and these players are turning their backs on team(.) Yes there is a risk in the game but there is a risk every time you step in the field. You accept that when you sign up to play(.) As former NFL scout for 30 years, I find it selfish on these players part. Also, I question their overall competitive nature. If a college kids quits on his college team, he will eventually quit on his pro team. Goes hand in hand(.)”
Besides McCaffrey’s teammates Solomon Thomas posting a tribute to McCaffrey and Trenton Irwin tweeting team support for McCaffrey’s decision, there’s a lot of wrong to unpack in Gabriel’s take. Among other parts of it, demanding someone walk into a risk just because is exceptionally foolish and privileged from the safety of social media or a microphone or column space. And the choice of a player to save his body — his labor — for the NFL shows a desire to be his best for his future pro team, no? None of us should dictate how someone legally sets up their potential generational wealth, but whatever. Gabriel is a longtime scout, and part of that job is to weed out human beings from automatons. Luckily Football and all its emotionally amputated awfulness is becoming increasingly more human and less poster board shaming of putting logos above mythos.
Donovan McNabb, he of the former player contingent checking in on these damn kids, has a problem with players eschewing the great college football tradition of not to make reply and not to reason why but to do and die for Football.
“I don’t agree with this,” McNabb told ESPN. “It sets a bad example for the kids.”
Helen Lovejoy shrieking aside, McNabb was sentenced to 18 days in jail for his second DUI just a year ago. Maybe the pathos grab of proper models for our kids, dumb as it is, should come from someone else. But Fournette, McCaffrey, Linwood and any future bowl-skippers are setting a great example for kids. “Don’t let people use you,” “Be yourself” and “Stand up for what you believe in” are axioms impressed on kids everywhere. Except when it comes to football. Then shut up and run into stuff for the benefit of others.
Checking in from the current super-rich NFL player gallery, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had a fuego thought Monday.
Elliott would be suiting up for Ohio State this bowl season had he not chose to leave school early to make gobs of money in the NFL. People started knocking on that door immediately, and Elliot attempted to dig upward.
There’s not, and he knows it. Anything else, Zeke?
Well, that all was productive. It’s easy for guys like Elliott and McNabb to poo-poo from comfortable positions today like uncles who think your music preference is a travesty. They got their money, and damn anyone else who figures out a better way to do it. Coupled with those who think the way they get to consume Football is being tarnished by players who are rising above their disposability, who’s the actual selfish party here?
At least Marcus Lattimore, someone who suffered two horrific college football injuries that surely prevented him from being a great NFL running back, added sense to the battle of takes.
It ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun, and Football and its loyalists are beginning to see unpaid labor become further weaponized, and it terrifies them. And so come the panicky arguments reminiscent of defenses of unpaid labor yore, what Taylor Branch calls “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
If a Jaylon Smith would do it all over again and risk his body for a bigger life track, I can’t tell him he’s wrong. The opposite is also true, though, and far more rational. I’m willing to listen to a valid argument against what Fournette, McCaffrey and Linwood are doing — and what more and more players in meaningless games will do in the future.
Problem is, there isn’t one.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.